February 4, 2007, by Peter Kirwan

Henry V (Compagnia Pippo Delbono) @ The Swan Theatre

The thinking about this play began way back in November, when Pippo Delbono, an Italian theatre practitioner who has won awards for his experimental community style, came to Stratford-upon-Avon to audition young actors to take part in ‘Henry V’, and also to give a talk. Entitled ‘Tales Of June’, it’s probably the biggest event I didn’t manage to attend (but it wasn’t a play, so it doesn’t count in the Complete Works!). There, I am told, he explained much of his style and the way he works.

The last three days saw the fruition of the project premiere in The Swan. Pippo and two other actors combined with a 25-strong cast of local young actors (plus a couple of his own company) to create an unusual and highly effective piece of work based on ‘Henry V’. I say based on, for this was not the play as appears on paper. Taking lengthy extracts from the text and rearranging them, this was a piece of theatre about war- the motivations, the fear, the cost and the changes it effects in participants. Much of the storytelling was through movement and visual motifs, moments of surrealism and impressions deliberately made vague. Coupled with the Italian language (surtitles were immensely useful, helping the English audience keep track of a text which jumped about in time), this was not a production for the faint-hearted, but there were treasures therein.

Henry himself was a beer-drinking, overweight slob, awakened from his stupor by calls to shake off his dissolute youth. Another actor played a composite “Friend Of The King”, and the central plot, such as it was, followed the relationship between the two. The Friend progressed from scrubbing the bare floor to being decked in leather coat and leading the battle to finally announcing victory wihle teetering on crutches and a sole remaining leg. Along the way the two engaged in an emotional journey, dealing with the fear caused by seemingly impossible odds, the grittiness of battle and mourning over the bloodshed. The Friend in particular lost his innocence through battle, while Henry started and finished with the same peculiar dance, celebrating his victory in typically loutish style.

These pictures from the internet show conceptual art detailing the look of two characters:

Conceptual art of The Horse

Conceptual art of The Friend

The highlight of the play for me was the third actor, playing “The French”. A foppish man in a suit, with a gang of sycophantic followers laughing at his every word, The French occupied a world of affectation sullied by the atrocities that then commenced. Immediately unlikable but very funny, he minced about and smugly mocked the King. Later, however, he found himself blindfolded on a chair, calling for his companions. Receiving no answer, his panic grew until he was screaming the names over and over in a horribly movig moment.

More surreal, the French’s horse was given special significance, with the Chorus dancing around it in two circles while it (a man with a head-dress made to look like a porcelain rocking horse head) gestured regally and pranced about the stage. The horse returned at the end to look at the dead French, lying beside him and mourning as if in a stylised melodrama.

The Chorus of locals were used to good effect, particularly in a moment where they quietly lay on top of each other to form an enormous pile of bodies. Much of the play was performed in slow-motion, giving an effect of events constantly building to an unknown climax and cleverly disrupted when battle commenced with a manic and disordered pandemonium onstage.

Pippo Delbono (Henry V)

In many ways, this was more of a response to ‘Henry V’ than a retelling of it, with the elements of the play reconfigured to tell a new story of war and its effects. I will admit, i was disappointed to find it wasn’t a fuller production of the play, as ‘Henry V’ is a play I haven’t really seen performed before, but this play served a different and vital purpose and was well worth the trip to Stratford.

The Italian translation was beautiful, rolling off the tongues of the three speakers, and the visual imagery was effective. The play was a bit wearing after a while- while repetition and slow motion were key to the play’s success, they also forced time to slow down, and the hour long production felt somewhat longer. This is no real complaint though, as Pippo and his companions had found a story they felt worth the telling at the heart of Shakespeare’s play, and made it their own. I can understand it not being to everyone’s tastes, and a couple of walkouts halfway through were disappointing, but on the whole this was an enjoyable and thought-provoking take on the themes of ‘Henry V’.

Posted in Theatre review